Corporate Think Tank Dives into Water Policy

In May 2008, the major law firm Hunton & Williams launched the Water Policy Institute (WPI), a think tank-esque, industry-supported consortium formed "to address water supply, quality and use issues," according to its website.

After the initial flurry of press releases, WPI appeared to
languish. Then, ten months after its formation, WPI issued its first
white paper. "Water Wars: Conflicts Over Shared Waters" (pdf)
focuses on two river basins in the Southeastern United States. The
paper urges the states involved -- Georgia, Florida and Alabama -- to
put aside litigation and work with federal mediators to reach an
agreement on water allocation. It also supports further study of
seasonal water use, ecological issues and efficiency measures.

The white paper's conclusions seem reasonable, even obvious. So much
so that it's unclear why Hunton & Williams felt the need to recruit
major public relations and corporate powerhouses when forming WPI --
and what they, and the law firm, get out of the effort.

What is clear is that WPI, Hunton & Williams and their
corporate allies have a long history of siding with (or being)
polluters and attempting to undermine water quality safeguards. It
seems reasonable, therefore, to worry that whatever WPI is up to, it's
likely to do more harm than good.

WPI's usual suspects

The Water Policy Institute's chair is former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman. After leaving the EPA, Whitman founded her own public relations firm. The Whitman Strategy Group's clients include FMC Corporation, a chemical and pesticide manufacturer; the oil company Chevron's Environmental Management Company; and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry lobby group. Since 2006, Whitman has co-chaired the NEI-funded and Hill & Knowlton-managed Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a pro-nuclear front group.

"I have, for many years now, believed that water is the greatest
environmental challenge facing the world in the 21st century," Whitman stated,
in a speech at WPI's inaugural meeting. Since first being elected to
public office 25 years ago, she said, "I have been wrestling with water
issues." WPI "will help policymakers in every sector better understand
-- and more effectively communicate and advance -- the need for
action," she added.

There are also financial incentives for Whitman's involvement
with WPI. Whitman "is now helping to bring clients to the law firm of
Hunton & Williams as chairwoman of its new Water Policy Institute,"
reported Congressional Quarterly in June 2008. "Whitman's firm will get an undisclosed fee for its work."

In addition to Whitman's political star power, WPI presumably
benefits from the connections and resources of its founding corporate
members: BP, GE Water and the Central Arizona Project. As a multinational oil, gas and fuels company, BP's interests in water issues are significant. For example, the company is invested in Alberta's tar sands, where oil development requires -- and pollutes -- large volumes of water. Last year, BP was party to a $423 million settlement compensating U.S. public water systems for contamination from the gas additive MTBE.

GE Water describes itself
as "a leading global supplier of water treatment, wastewater treatment
and process systems solutions." In an August 2006 press release, the
company enthused, "Globally, the water market is $365 billion and
offers a high growth potential." Its products range from water
treatment chemicals, filters and membranes; to industrial water
management systems; to "mobile water" emergency back-ups. GE Water
boasts "the world's largest base of desalination systems," which use an
energy-intensive process to produce fresh water from seawater or salty
water. GE Water is also involved with Canada's tar sands, as part of a
$15 million effort "to improve water usage" during oil extraction.

The Central Arizona Project is a
"336-mile long system of aqueducts, tunnels, pumping plants and
pipelines" that directs Colorado River water to three Arizona counties.
The "quasi-governmental entity" that runs the project has hired the
Hunton & Williams firm to weigh in on several water-related legal
cases. Due to growing population, drought and climate change, the
Central Arizona Project is likely to face increased competition for
water resources. It's also nervous about possible carbon tax or
cap-and-trade policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as it relies
on the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station for its substantial power needs.

Hunton for Robb

The Water Policy Institute's home, Hunton & Williams, isn't the
most environmentally-friendly law firm. In a landmark 2007 case before
the U.S. Supreme Court, the firm argued that the EPA shouldn't be
allowed to regulate carbon dioxide. By the time the court ruled against
them, Hunton & Williams "had built up a team of energy lobbyists
who could ... work to minimize the potential damage to their clients
through legislation," reported The Hill.

Hunton & Williams' lobbying clients include the oil giant ConocoPhillips, the electric industry's Edison Electric Institute, infamous polluter Koch Industries and the powerful National Association of Manufacturers lobby group. Also on the list is "Americans for Affordable Climate Policy,"
a front group formed by coal interests to ensure that any cap-and-trade
system gives free emissions credits to industry. Hunton & Williams'
non-lobbying clients include Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris), military contractor General Dynamics, drugmaker Pfizer and Texas energy company Luminant (formerly known as TXU).

On water issues, Hunton & Williams lobbies for the Waters Advocacy Coalition, another industry front group whose members include the National Mining Association, the anti-regulatory and industry-funded Western Business Roundtable, the pesticide industry group CropLife America and the American Forest & Paper Association, which represents the "forest products industry."

WPI's director is Kathy Robb,
a Hunton & Williams partner focused on resources, regulatory and
environmental law. In a 2005 filing with the U.S. Supreme Court, Robb
argued that hydroelectric dam operators shouldn't be regulated under
the Clean Water Act.
In 2005 and 2006, Robb filed briefs on behalf of the Central Arizona
Water Conservation District, which operates the Central Arizona
Project. The briefs supported a canal lining project that
environmentalists and local groups feared would dry up wetlands and
harm rural communities. Robb's clients include "developers, electric
utilities, investors, chemical manufacturers, and paper mills,"
according to Hunton & Williams' website.

Robb has said that WPI is interested in issues of water "scarcity
and pricing and ... how you can encourage people to conserve,"
"recycling and reclamation," "the interconnection between energy and
water," and "the intersection increasingly of water quality and water
quantity issues." How do those laudable goals square with Robb's legal
work to restrict the application of the Clean Water Act, with the
interests of WPI's corporate members, or with Hunton & Williams'

I called Robb's office to request an interview. Her assistant
quickly identified a time, several days later, when I could speak with
her. Then, just before the interview was supposed to take place, the
assistant called back to cancel it. I repeatedly contacted the office
to reschedule. At one point, a nervous-sounding woman asked me where
the interview would appear and what questions I would ask Robb. More
than two weeks, several phone calls and emails later, it seems safe to
conclude that Kathy Robb doesn't want to talk with me.

Life, death and water policy

Kathy Robb's silence doesn't bode well for WPI. Serious policy
groups realize that, in order to have any credibility, they must either
scrupulously avoid or fully disclose potential conflicts of interest. If WPI has any such policies, they're not public. WPI's website doesn't even include a list of its members.

In 2003, former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali
stated, "Water will be more important than oil this century." Today, an
estimated one billion people don't have access to clean drinking water.
In 2025, the UN predicts that 1.8 billion people will live in areas
with "absolute water scarcity." According to a June 2008 technical paper for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is "very high confidence" that "adverse effects of climate change
on freshwater systems [will] aggravate the impacts of other stresses,
such as population growth, changing economic activity, land-use change
and urbanisation."

These are serious, complex and urgent issues. The last thing we need is another corporate front group muddying the waters.

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